recognizing heat stress in chickens

The intense summer heat here in Phoenix arrived a bit late this year, but mother nature is now making up for it. Our daily highs have been up to 117°, which is more than uncomfortable. Indoor activities and exercise are best for both humans and animals. It's kind-of like being snowed-in, except we have the opposite problem. We have to be especially careful to be sure our animals stay healthy and protect them from the harsh temperatures. Mid-day dog walks are out of the question, so I have to walk my clients before dawn. Double-checking water bowls are also critical. When I make my pet sitting visits, I make sure all of the animals in my care are comfortable and not suffering from any heat-related issues. I've recently learned more about heat stress in chickens, as I've been called upon several times to check on some of my favorite chickens who haven't been doing too well with the recent heat. 

 Recognizing heat stress in chickens and how to prevent and treat an overheated chicken.

Recognizing heat stress in chickens and how to prevent and treat an overheated chicken.

Backyard chickens are sensitive to temperature, which can be a challenge since they are primarily outdoor creatures. As lovely as they are, not many of us would invite them inside to sit on the couch with a glass of iced tea to cool off. Chickens can succumb to heat stroke rapidly, so it is important to monitor them closely and intervene at the first sign (or before) of distress. One of my clients thought she might lose her chickens on a couple of occasions this summer and has called on me to check on them during the hottest parts of the day if she can't be there. She has educated me about the signs that a chicken is suffering from heat-related distress, and I have done some additional research in order to be better prepared.

signs of heat stress in chickens

So what should we look for to determine if backyard chickens are in trouble?

• Wing Spread. Chickens typically keep their wings fairly close to their bodies. If a chicken has its wings spread for a prolonged period of time, she is trying to increase air circulation around her body in an attempt to cool herself.

• Lethargy. Decreased activity levels and laying down are signs that a chicken is overheated.

 Eggs I collected during one of my chicken-sits. At left is the "distressed" egg side-by-side with a normal egg. At right is a closeup of the distressed egg. 

Eggs I collected during one of my chicken-sits. At left is the "distressed" egg side-by-side with a normal egg. At right is a closeup of the distressed egg. 

• Panting. While panting is a way dogs help themselves cool off and is quite normal, unless excessive, if you see a chicken pant, it's time to intervene. They cannot regulate their body temperature as efficiently as a dog. 

• Waddle and comb lose color. If the chicken's waddle and comb lose color, it is likely a sign of being overheated. The waddle and comb may also appear overly dry.

• Misshapen eggs or no eggs. If your chicken stops laying eggs according to her regular schedule, or if the eggs are misshapen, your chicken may be overheated.

If left untreated, an overheated chicken can begin to have seizures and convulsions, leading to heat stroke and likely death, in a relatively short period of time. Early intervention is critical. 

ways to help chickens beat the heat

My clients have outlined a plan A, B, and C, for me when I care for their chickens, which I very much appreciate. Care during the hot summer months includes:

• Making sure they have fresh ice water. Chickens tend to be a bit messy, so their water should be checked for cleanliness and temperature several times a day. 

 Three of my favorite ladies beating the heat in the shade while wading in a puddle. 

Three of my favorite ladies beating the heat in the shade while wading in a puddle. 

• Misting system. The chickens I care for do very well with a misting system that attaches to an outdoor fan. The fan and mist together provide the chickens with a cool area that they can enjoy.

• Shade and shelter. Chickens should never be forced in full sun, especially when temperatures are so high. Making sure their area has plenty of shade is critical.

• Water for cooling. Chickens don't love to swim, but in an emergency, they can be dunked into cool (not cold) water up to their necks to provide relief. You may also consider providing a wading area, such as a kiddie pool, for them to cool their feet. They don't love it, but hosing them down is another tactic for cooling.

• Electrolyte replenishment. Dehydration and heat stress deplete vital electrolytes in the body. The Chicken Chick has a great, easy recipe for a homemade electrolyte solution for chickens. She also shares a lot of other great information, so check out her site. 

• A safe indoor space. As a last resort, chickens may need to be invited inside. My clients are lucky in that they have an air-conditioned tack room with a large dog crate, so I've been advised to seek shelter for the chickens there, if they overheat. If you're not lucky enough to have a tack room, a bathroom is a great alternative. It's fairly easy to wipe down once your chickens are ready to go back outside.

Do you keep backyard chickens? How do you protect them from harsh elements?